Integrity: towards a definition
SOMETIME BACK, I heard an account, perhaps anecdotal or fictitious, about a man who was stealing electricity. A friend rebuked him, saying, “Robbie, yu cyaan do dat, man, yu a rab revenue.” His angry reply was: “Rab revenue? Rab revenue? I waan ketch revenue fi stab im inna im [expletives omitted].” A rebuffed challenge re wholesome ethics and integrity.
Despite our parliamentary Integrity Commission Act (2014) and the necessary and hard-working National Integrity Action, which has full chapter status with Transparency International, most of us are still not exactly clear about a definition of integrity.
So whether we are lauding or chastising a parson, politician, policeman or Robbie about integrity, we are in fuzzy-wuzzy land somewhat. Sure, we all seem to be aware of the basic fact that integrity is contrary to involvement in corruption (i.e., doing what is not permitted by law or by established best practices or societal ideals).
I wish to offer something towards a definition of integrity that the more knowledgeable can refine.
My working germinal definition of integrity is: wholehearted, abiding faithfulness to wholesome, abiding principles.
The evaluative yardstick means must be ‘wholehearted, abiding faithfulness’ because half-hearted, occasional faithfulness to even wholesome abiding principles would be detrimental and unhelpful. We are all, at heart, desirous of absolute principles of rightness and wrongness, even while we espouse relativism (the view that there are no absolutes, i.e., there is no act or intention which is always right or wrong). Let the legal relativist ponder the absolutist oath so fundamental to the courts!
Without fixed goalpost markers, we will kick around but never really score! I like to illustrate ideas with blunt, even obnoxious, examples. So persons in romantic relationships would not [normally] be cool with a partner showing only occasional adherence to ‘not sleeping with anyone else’, neither is a company’s hierarchy ever at ease with employees showing only occasional adherence to ‘not robbing the company by fraud’.
Here’s a very mischievous one: Lecturers (most of whom despise absolutes) and educational institutions never ever allow students to cheat on any exam. This is an unrecognised absolutist policy! Life at its best, as desired by all of us deep down, demands wholehearted, abiding faithfulness to wholesome, abiding principles. That, I suggest, is the irreducible core of integrity.
At the base of our woes, in terms of principles of individual and group behaviour, is our instinctive preference for relativism over absolutism, without appreciation of the real cost of living on relativism. Mind you, absolutism has it challenges as well.
In a recorded lecture on ethics that I was invited to give at the Jamaica Theological Seminary several years ago, and which I titled ‘Ethical Principles & Practices: A Two-edged Sword’, I said:
“At the level of ethical practice, ethical relativism is delightful to live on but uncomfortable to live with. If I am ethically free to indulge my desires whenever I so choose regardless, then every other person is entitled to that luxury, even to my detriment.
“If ethical relativism is defensible, the consistent relativist could not instinctively or belatedly experience or express outrage at any so-called ‘wrong’, because it could be right owing to the context in which it happened. [Forgetting law for the moment] Rob the relativist, swindle him in business, rape his wife, bugger his son, lie on him in court, etc. and he would be forced to grin and bear it because any such act could be ethically right.
Why then the ethical furore over non-transparency in the awarding of fat governmental contracts [to suspect persons or companies] if relativism rules? Why the moral outrage concerning companies that use double-invoicing to evade the tax man, vote-buying, contract murders, cheating in exams, evading Customs, multiple-taxation laws, sex for promotion, etc, if relativism rules and is defensible as a theory of ethical decision-making?”
Integrity, properly defined, challenges all of us deeply. I rest my case.